Jeff Immelt, who’s peddling a book about his 16 years running General Electric Co., has yet to hear from one potential reader: Larry Culp, the company’s current chief executive.
“If he ever called, I’d be happy to help,” Immelt said in an interview with Bloomberg Television. “But I’m going to leave that to him.”
Culp’s silence speaks volumes about GE’s plight. For all its history of innovation — pioneering the light bulb, the electric locomotive, the jet engine — the company is still trying to escape its recent past.
By the time Immelt exited in 2017, GE’s shares were in the midst of a 2½-year tailspin that would reduce the company’s market value from more than $300 billion to less than $60 billion. Culp is now attempting a turnaround by cutting costs, repaying debt, and instilling more operational rigor with a focus on cash.
“I don’t think he necessarily wants to look back and talk to people in the past, and I don’t blame him for that,” Immelt said.
Immelt’s successor, John Flannery, lasted just 14 months as chief executive before he too was pushed out. Culp, a former chief executive of Danaher Corp., replaced him more than two years ago at Boston-based GE.
In contrast to Culp’s disregard, Immelt often sought the counsel of Jack Welch, the larger-than-life figure he succeeded at GE. He recounts one such episode in his new book, “Hot Seat.” In early 2009, Immelt called Welch for advice on whether to cut GE’s dividend. At the time, he was resentful over comments Welch had made on TV, “but I didn’t have the luxury of holding a grudge,” he writes.
The book is part reminiscence, part reprisal. While Immelt takes responsibility for what happened on his watch, he pins blame for some of GE’s troubles on Welch, Flannery, and especially Steve Bolze, who headed GE’s vaunted power division. In Immelt’s telling, Bolze was more interested in maneuvering to become chief executive than overseeing a complex $14 billion acquisition from France’s Alstom SA.
“We had difficult markets, a difficult deal, and a leader that I felt like wasn’t completely committed to the purpose and to the company, and I point that out,” Immelt said in the interview.
Bolze remembers things differently.
“I stand by the work of the GE Power & Water team, and it’s unfortunate that Jeff’s recollections don’t line up with the facts,” Bolze said in a statement.
Once it became clear the Alstom purchase was proving disastrous, the pressure on Immelt began to mount and within months he was ousted. He now wishes GE had walked away instead of agreeing to concessions demanded by European regulators.
Since leaving GE, Immelt, now 65, has taught courses on leadership at the Stanford Graduate School of Business and joined New Enterprise Associates as a venture partner.
Recently, his tenure at GE generated more controversy when the company agreed to pay $200 million to settle claims it misled investors over aspects of its financial health in 2016 and 2017. A company investigation found no reason to claw back any of Immelt’s compensation.
Culp’s pay has also come under the microscope since August, when GE renegotiated his contract and lowered the bar for earning a payout of about $230 million in 2024. Under Culp, the shares have recovered most of the ground they lost during the coronavirus pandemic and GE’s market value has bounced back to more than $100 billion.
Immelt said he won’t pass judgment on Culp’s pay or performance.
“Image matters, not just for the GE CEO but for all CEOs,” Immelt said. “These are things Larry has to be thinking about.”